Cut flowers group taking strong roots in Montgomery County, Md.
Twenty years ago, the Maryland Cut Flower Growers Association started out with a handful of growers.
Since then, the group has grown exponentially, attracting growers of all types and sizes.
Stone Slade of the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Maryland’s Best program said the MCFGA is “a bright spot.”
“The association is one of the more valued members of the Maryland’s Best program,” Slade said. “We’ve continued to see new members and new leadership coming into the organization. It’s especially helpful for people who are just getting into the cut flower industry.”
Melane Hoffmann, a Montgomery County flower grower and MCFGA president became involved with the organization in 2013.
She said the association has been critical to her success and sees it as an important part of a growing industry.
“In Maryland, we are really fortunate to have this association and as far as I know we’re the only state to have one,” Hoffmann said.
The MCFGA typically meets three times per year, in the winter, to network and share information.
Kathy York, of Scarborough Farm in Mechanicsville, has been involved with the association from the start. In the early days, she said the group was vital for getting information on a local level.
“We depended on each other for information and knowledge,” York said. “Younger farmers today can just Google everything. Newer growers are moving along much faster.”
Despite the overwhelming amount of information available through the internet, both York and Hoffmann agreed that the peer to peer networking was important.
“The association is there to help everybody. One thing we’ve learned is that there’s enough business to go around. We help each other out. It’s a good place for sharing information,” Hoffmann said.
Before Hoffmann started Hidden Ridge Farm in 2013, she worked in Washington D.C. in the advertising industry.
After her recovery from breast cancer, she said she knew she wanted to continue working, but didn’t want to go back into the DC routine.
She said she had always been an avid gardener and she kept coming back to the idea of growing flowers.
Hoffmann attended a workshop hosted in part by the Montgomery County Extension called “Farming at Metro’s Edge.” She realized that she could use her farm, which is located in the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, to grow flowers on a commercial scale.
“People think marketing and advertising are about trying to get someone to buy what you have. But that’s not it at all. It’s about figuring out how to provide something people want…I could see people were interested in local and natural products…the time had come,” Hoffmann said.
Hoffmann said flower growers are capitalizing on consumer’s demand for local flowers in a variety of ways.
“Every farmers’ market wants flowers. It’s beautiful eye candy and flowers help upgrade the market. And it’s a great for young people getting into the business because they can build relationships with their customers,” Hoffmann said.
But she added that farmers’ markets also present challenges.
“Flowers are perishable…they can be greatly affected by bad weather. You need to have a lot of variety if you’re going to be selling at a farmers’ market,” she said.
Hoffmann said another marketing opportunity that is popular among flower growers is the subscription model. With community supported agriculture, or a CSA, customers sign up to receive cut flowers or bouquets on a regular basis.
In her 23 years as a flower farmer, York said she’s seen strong growth in the “do it yourself” trend. On her farm, CSA customers pick up a bucket of stems each week to take home and arrange themselves.
In addition, she offers on-farm floral workshops in a converted tobacco barn to help people learn and develop floral design skills.
It’s not just consumers who want to buy local flowers, though. Florists and floral designers are increasingly demanding more local products.
In March, the MCFGA hosted a workshop that brought farmers and florists together to discuss challenges and opportunities. Hoffmann said there were about 50 people in attendance.
“What we learned is that florists want availability lists with details and those growers who get there fastest are the ones they’re going to work with,” she said.
“On the flip side, we can introduce them to things they’ve never thought of before or never had access to before. There are things that local growers have that wholesalers don’t,” Hoffmann added.
An example of a budding relationship between a grower and a designer is Priscilla Wentworth of Anchored Roots Farm in Hollywood and Michaela Hogarty of Days of May Florals in Solomons.
Wentworth said the relationship is mutually beneficial.
“She’s teaching me floral design and in exchange, I’m teaching her how to grow flowers,” Wentworth said.
For Hogarty, the relationship is particularly exciting because it allows her to experiment with new things.
“I’m able to create more interesting designs by using local flowers. Also, Priscilla wants to grow tulips and I can show her which are my favorite, so maybe she can grow those for me,” Hogarty said.
Even traditional farmers are breaking into the floral industry in unique ways.
Kelly Swann of Swann Farms in Owings said they are looking to add cut your own flowers to their already bustling produce business and pick your own berry business.
“It’s about creating memories with your family,” Swann said. “Parents want to have those experiences to pass down to their children. Our customers love the strawberries and asparagus and they’re looking for what more they can get their hands on.”
Swann said they’ll start with a patch of wild flowers this year for customers to cut, moving into more traditional cut flower varieties in the future.
“Who doesn’t love flowers,” Swann said. “It’s a token of beauty and a way for us to help people create new traditions and memories.”
Anecdotally, Slade said MDA expects that the demand for local flowers will stay strong as consumers become more aware and farmers expand to meet those demands.
“In general, we’ve seen the consumer preference for locally grown flowers mimic the local food trend. People want to know where their flowers are coming from and the story of the farmers who grew them. And people also want to contribute to the local economy,” Slade said.
Hoffmann said that it’s an exciting time for flower growers.
“I wish I could peek into the future and see who’s still here and how big did we get,” Hoffmann said. “All of us feel like we could sell every stem but the question becomes how much financial risk do you want to take and how much do you want it to consume every part of your life?”
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